ROCHESTER, Minn.–As part of a nationwide campaign to elect a Democrat to the White House, the highest ranking woman in American organized labor, Linda Chavez-Thompson, told the 600 delegates to the Minnesota AFL-CIO Convention here that the most pressing job of the union movement this fall is to send “a friend of working people” to Washington.
“It is the very life of our movement that is at stake in this election,” the executive vice president of the national AFL-CIO said in a passionate and personal speech about passing along to future generations the values of justice and dignity for working people.
Chavez-Thompson used the phrase “working people” to refer to members of unions and low-wage, unorganized workers.
In an interview prior to her speech, Chavez-Thompson, a 32-year veteran of the union movement, made clear that she places particular emphasis on the importance of women of color and immigrants to the growth of the labor movement and its political muscle. The AFL-CIO now has 5.5 million women members and 8 million male members, and it has been reaching out to service workers who are often persons of color and recent immigrants.
“People of color, union people and women have to be very concerned about the next one, two, three appointments to the Supreme Court,” she said. “We know what George Bush would do. We also know what Al Gore would do. We know Al Gore is for a woman’s right to choose [whether to terminate a pregnancy], that he knows what affirmative action means to people trying to gain access to good jobs and education, that he knows about worker rights.”
She also commented on polls indicating that time pressures and economic security through entitlement reform, wage improvements and health care access are top concerns for women voters, while male voters are apt to cite a preference for using the government surpluses for tax cuts.
“Women are getting it,” she said. “Women are saying, ‘What’s the future for my child?'”
The daughter of Texas cotton sharecroppers, Chavez-Thompson is a second-generation American of Mexican descent. She serves on a wide variety of labor and government advisory boards, worked as a member of the President’s Initiative on Race, and advises the State Department on labor diplomacy.
Chavez-Thompson’s stem-winder argued that to elect Texas governor George W. Bush as president would be to elect “one of the most determined enemies of working people.”
In a call for local union people to provide information and leadership for union voters, Chavez-Thompson cited the big bounce for “working family” candidates when workers receive a personal message from a union leader before voting.
In a survey, 58 percent of union members voted for candidates deemed to be pro-labor. However, if a local union representative contacted union members with information about approved candidates, that percentage rose to 76 percent, representing an 18-point bounce.
By the election, the union expects to reach its entire membership through a personal contact.
Chavez-Thompson made a strong plea for the delegates to make personal contacts with other union people between now and Election Day.
“We have to make sure that son of a Bush” doesn’t get to the White House, she said. “He is not for union people. He is not for women. He is not for people of color.”
To make her point about what’s at stake with Bush, she cited some of his actions as governor, including opposing an increase in the minimum wage of workers who now make only $8,000 a year in full-time wages.
“George W. Bush has raised the poverty rate in Texas by one-third,” Chavez-Thompson claimed.
She continued down a long list of Bush actions as governor, saying he proposed putting the welfare system under a for-profit management company and that he wanted to privatize work now performed by unionized state employees.
“What if this guy made it to the White House? What would he do to workers in Rochester, Minn., or St. Paul?” she asked rhetorically.
The labor organizer painted a stark contrast between the Texas governor and Vice President Al Gore, the presidential candidate endorsed by the AFL-CIO.
Gore, she noted, had been there for union people, too. She said that even when representing Tennessee, a “right-to-work-for-less” state, he supported the right of workers to organize in unions. “That is a real profile in courage,” she said.
Glenda Crank Holste is a Twin Cities journalist who has been covering social and economic issues for 10 years. The Spanish version of this story was translated by Ruben Rosario, also a Twin Cities journalist and columnist.
Photo by workdayminnesota.org.